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Libs' economic stewardship far from exemplary

By Evan Jones - posted Friday, 15 October 2004

“Interest rates will be higher under Labor” - John Howard

It's less crude than "reds under the bed", but its essential vulgarity is a jolt. After eight years, doesn't Howard have a record of achievement that he can display to a wavering electorate? Howard has already debased himself on matters of substance so the puerile nature of an electoral jibe should involve no embarrassment at all.

Letter-writers to the press claim that they were planning to vote for John Howard because of his excellent record on the economy, a contrast with the reputedly disastrous experience under Hawke and Keating.


The claim ignores Howard's depredations with the public purse. But there is a basic problem here with causation. What is the connection between a government in office and the contemporaneous economy? And how is "the economy" and good performance measured? Political parties naturally eschew the rules of inference and hope that electors will suspend judgement. The practice is to claim all the "good" things for themselves and explain away all the "bad" things as due to the other side when in office or to uncontrollable global forces.

What about the mortgage interest rate story in particular? Howard has a poor memory of the escalating rates when he was Treasurer. Rates have been low since 1996, but why? We have a poor understanding of why interest rates are currently at a relatively low level.

Lower inflation is a proximate cause, but why lower inflation? Lower prices of manufactured goods, due to a technological revolution and to the juggernaut which is low-wage Chinese production? The massive destructive shock of the early 1990s recession? Lower tariffs? Higher productivity? But if higher productivity, due to what - better working or harder, longer working? Has the Reserve Bank suppressed price and wage increases by killing "inflationary expectations"?

Plausible stories are all we have. The economics experts tend not to ponder overlong on these questions, and when they do they resort (like everybody else) to gut prejudices. But it is transparent that significant components of the plausible stories have no evident thread attaching them to Howard's reign or Howard's capacity. In short, on interest rates, Howard is talking out of his proverbial.

One shouldn't discount the disastrous interest rate regime over which Labor Treasurer Paul Keating prevailed. But if the Coalition had been in office through the 1980s the story would have been little different. The econocrats were driving policy, and Coalition Ministers would have dutifully followed orders as did Keating.

What should interest us is not just what separates the parties but what they have in common - the domestic institutional structure within which economic policy gets made. Parts of the structure have evolved (the dismantling of the tariff regime and significant components of the arbitration system), but other parts have remained cemented.


Most significant is the central role of the Federal Treasury in economic policy, in place since 1950. The role is both direct and indirect, the latter through the inculcation of the "Treasury Line" throughout the bureaucracy and Ministerial offices. Malcolm Fraser is the only Prime Minister to have made a dent in the treasury domain. Fraser created a separate Department of Finance out of Treasury and elevated the independence of the Reserve Bank; but by the time Labor came to power, the three institutions were offering variations on a common theme.

And what does the Treasury prescribe? The best statement of the conventional wisdom is in Statement No.3 of the 1999-2000 Budget Papers. Sound macroeconomic management (budget surpluses and a cash interest rate aimed at keeping inflation below 2 per cent) and microeconomic reform (eliminate all impediments to free market operation). That's it.

No government plays strictly by the rules. Nevertheless, governments, whether Labor or Coalition, have one foot nailed to the ground because of the perceived necessity to kowtow to the rules. The central economic agencies had a narrow view of how economies work before neo-liberalist ideology came along; neo-liberalism has merely reinforced their authority.

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Article edited by Nicholas Gruen.
If you'd like to be a volunteer editor too, click here.

First published in the Canberra Times, Thursday, 7 October 2004.

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About the Author

Dr Evan Jones is an Honorary Associate Professor in Political Economy at the University of Sydney, where he has taught since 1973. His research interests are in Australian economic history and the political economy of comparative industry and economic policy structures in capitalist economies.

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